I just recently reread Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the tenth anniversary author’s preferred text edition. As I was reading it I was struck again by how the type of story or magic realism, if you prefer, is similar to Joshua Mansfield and Sheri Zod. There are probably folks out there who think I was trying to write like Gaiman, which is odd since I’d never heard of Gaiman when I wrote JMSZ nearly twenty years ago.
I liked Neverwhere when I saw it on television (some years after having written JMSZ) and I was aware that the story had come from a writer named Neil Gaiman, but I didn’t actually read any of his stuff until about four years ago. I read Fragile Things, then I finally read Neverwhere. I didn’t read American Gods until two years ago when it was the first book selected for the Twitter “1 book, 140″ bookclub, as it was called then. Having now devoured most of his novels and short stories, as well as The Sandman graphic novels, I suppose you could call me a fan. I buy his books and give them as gifts. I like the lens through which he sees the world. I finished JMSZ in 1993 (having spent several years working on it), well before Gaiman wrote American Gods. The similarity — it’s a road trip across America, strange and magical things happen, etc. — is mostly a vague one, a sense that the America that we travel through and that we live in has unexpected magic if we’re just open enough to see it. There are no gods in my book: just two ordinary people on an extraordinary journey.
One thing that gave me a jolt both times I read American Gods is that in both our books we have our protagonist sitting on a bed in a cheap motel flipping channels on the television, noting what’s on each. The scenes have one show in common: M.A.S.H. While in his book the scene veers into surreal weirdness, in mine it veers into a discussion of sex. To be fair, my channel-flipping protagonist has someone in the room to talk to while Gaiman’s has only the TV, in which Lucy Ricardo disconcertingly starts talking to his protagonist, Shadow. (Just one example of why Gaiman is great.) One thing you can always count on, though: no matter what universe you (or your characters) live in M.A.S.H will always be on the television.
No two brains are the same. While I sort of see how some people might make a connection or comparison, I don’t feel that JMSZ is very much like Gaiman because too much of it came from a rubbery sort of distortion of things that I’ve seen or experienced, transmogrified beyond recognition into something magical. (Magic is everywhere if you just have the presence of mind to look sideways at it.) Likewise, Gaiman’s gone places and done things that uniquely influenced his imagination. There are, however, tiny bits of strangeness scattered throughout our books that show a certain kinship of the imagination. No two writers are alike. What we write comes out of our imagination (especially for fantasy like JMSZ and American Gods) and while it’s true that two people can think of the same idea, this is largely because fiction has a vast well of characters, ideas, themes and plots which, try as we might, we can only veer from so far because if we truly wrote something that was in style, content, characters, plot, pacing— everything — nothing even remotely like anything that had ever been done before, chances are readers would be utterly baffled about what the hell it was they were looking at. It’s the difficulty science fiction writers have in creating aliens and alien civilizations which are truly and completely alien. Some great writers have done it, but it’s quite a challenge and ultimately they have to make what they’re doing understandable to the reader. The same is true of the sort of contemporary fantasy that Gaiman does so well and that I dip into occasionally with tales like Joshua Mansfield and Sheri Zod.
I have a hard time sticking to reality in my writing, especially short fiction. You’ll be seeing more of that once I get the mystery sequel finished. The world is always stranger and more wonderful than it seems.